Why give music away for free?


I had an email from a musician today who said he was struggling a little with the idea of giving away mp3s. It’s a really common issue, and so I thought I’d share my response.

1) You’re not giving away music, you’re giving away RECORDINGS of your music;
2) Don’t try to make money from your music, make money BECAUSE of your music;
3) Economics works differently for bits than it does for atoms.

Example: I wrote a book called The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online (http://newmusicstrategies.com/ebook). You can download it for free. For someone who writes words rather than plays music, that’s like an album.

I’ve never made money out of that book, because I’ve never charged for it. But I’ve certainly made money because of it. That’s a recording of my writing and thinking – not my writing and thinking itself.

It doesn’t cost me anything extra in time, energy, talent or investment whether one person downloads it or ten million people download it. I don’t have to manufacture any more copies. And the more I give it away for free, the more I get to charge for REAL stuff – like my time, my physical presence (speaking engagements, etc), other stuff that I write for print publications (magazines, books, newspapers – even other websites), and so on.

Okay – so it’s not the best analogy in the world – but it helps some people get their heads around the free mp3s thing.

Does that make sense?
My response was intended as provocation, rather than statement of fact (that is: “try thinking about it this way…”) – but actually, this holds true in most cases I’ve encountered.

Of course, there’s a great deal more to be said here – and this is not true for all people in all situations. I’d really appreciate your take on it in the comments. There will be as many people for whom giving away mp3s will not make sense. It depends entirely on your strategy, your audience, the unique characteristics of your music business and musical activities.

But giving mp3s away is a very common practice that not everyone immediately grasps as a viable business strategy.

Be very clear: I said business strategy – not business model. Giving stuff away for free is NOT a business model. You’ll find it very hard to make money if all you do is give things away. But equally it’s very hard to make money UNLESS you give things away.

As usual, Chris Anderson is quite good on this stuff.

Have a great new year, won’t you?

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154 thoughts on “Why give music away for free?

  1. Pete Smith says:

    We are an independent record label not a big bad corporation out to sue you for file sharing, we WANT you to spread our music around. To listen to the Antiqcool Music Business philosophy podcast go here


  2. Dave says:

    Hey! I found this post when looking for more ways to give away my band’s music. I’m a full supporter of embracing new means of distribution and any artist who isn’t will certainly run into trouble.

    The economics of the music industry are changing and for those independent artists who embrace it, these changes can really remove the financial barriers of distribution that created a large class divide between hobby/semi-professional musicians and major label acts.

    That said, feel free to download ( for free! ) and share this 3 song EP from my band, appropriately titled “Pass It On” : http://tinyurl.com/taa-passiton (the link will open a .zip file)

  3. andriea says:

    This makes a lot of sense. I was just wondering why I’ve been seeing so many people giving their albums and EPs away for free. Thought I was missing something. I understand now. My strategy was to sell my product at an extremely inexpensive price. It’s almost like giving it away, but it allows me to order more later.

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